An American in Europe after the Paris attacks

This post was written on November 25, 2015, while I was on a train from Venice to Munich. I just never got around to publishing it until now. Thanks for your patience.

Locanda Fiorita, Venice, Italy
Locanda Fiorita, Venice, Italy.

“Did you hear about the Italian girl who died in the Paris attacks?” Anthony asked us, his eyes glossy. When we told him no, we hadn’t, he said sadly, “She was from Venice and was studying in Paris. A smart girl, really sweet.”

“Her funeral is tomorrow,” he continued. “The prime minister is in town.”

That explained the news crews, police and others that we had seen on the ferry over, all dressed in dark clothes and standing in front of a a high-end hotel. It was a short walk from there to our quaint hotel in a quiet courtyard in Venice. Anthony, the front desk clerk at the Locanda Fiorita, had become our unofficial guide.

Hamburg, Germany

I’ve been in Europe since October, staying mostly in Hamburg while my husband, Jeff, is on a work assignment. After the attacks on Paris on November 13, people have asked me what it’s like over here. The easy answer is “alert.” Being an American in Europe right now is interesting in and of itself, as I’m still navigating a world I know very little about. But with the added consciousness of trying to stay safe in a place where the whole world is watching, on edge, makes all the senses a lot more heightened.

Hamburg to Rome

On this short trip to Venice, 10 days after the attacks on Paris, we arrived by train from Rome. Attacks had been threatened that week on Rome as well as Vatican City. The pope refused to cancel his trip to Africa despite the threats, and we had refused to cancel our trip, too.

And for the most part, Rome felt really safe. There were militia in busy areas holding oozis and standing near military vehicles. They were on alert as well as the polizia and those in charge of guarding the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and all of the other pieces of history that makes Rome so wonderful.

Piazza della Rotonda near the Pantheon, Rome, Italy.
Piazza della Rotonda near the Pantheon, Rome, Italy.

There was a moment, though, on our second to last evening in Rome, where I felt real fear. Jeff, a couple of friends and I were sitting at a trattoria in Piazza della Rotonda near the Pantheon, drinking coffee and enjoying watching the sky darken around the busy piazza, with crowds listening to a musician play almost-classics such as “Time After Time”.

Artists stopped by our table with paintings and animals made from stone for sale. People selling flashier items – a light-up airplane that would shoot up in the air, sunglasses that resembled nightclub strobes – had their place in the background of this mosaic.

Tourists took selfies while locals walked their dogs through the plaza and children ran around. It was all so magically chaotic. We just sat and took it all in, remarking on how the sky looked like a painting. It was a perfect moment in time.

Stacia excused herself to use the bathroom inside the trattoria, and Brandon, Jeff and I continued to enjoy the crowd watching.

And then everything changed.

Several motorcycles — six, maybe seven? — pulled up to the pedestrian-only piazza and stopped just at the edge of it, in a perfectly symmetrical line.

Each motorcycle carried two people. Each of the people wore identical jackets and helmets, with the exception of one person, who wore the same jacket but a helmet of a different color but the same pattern, gold instead of the others’ white.

They stayed on their bikes. Kept their helmets on. One or two of them flipped their eye plates up, so I could see their eyes as they glanced around, taking in the scene of the piazza, but I could see nothing else about their faces. One of the men even made eye contact with me as he looked around.

Maybe it was the heightened sense of awareness after what happened in Paris. Maybe it was the attacks that had recently been threatened against Rome. Maybe it was the fact that the Pantheon would be a pretty big target for someone wanting to commit a terror attack – but these people chilled me to the bone.

They had walkie talkies – I could hear them talking into them. One man had his phone attached at his belt, and then he started to pull something else out of his jacket pocket, slowly. My heart stopped. As I watched, I became convinced it was a gun. It turned out to be a second phone, but that brought me little comfort.

Brandon remarked on the Nextels right as Jeff said, “Maybe we should get the check.” I knew then that they had seen what I saw.

I suggested we pay inside, thinking of Stacia and wanting to get the four of us back together and as far away from this group as possible. But the waiter came over then, so we quickly paid him and stood up. Stacia came out and saw us standing, so she started making her way toward the Pantheon, where we were headed to next.

I walked quickly to catch up to her to tell her “Hang on a second. We just don’t know what they are doing.”

Then Brandon and Jeff ushered us out of the center of the piazza and over to a corner next to the Pantheon. Some ruins right there would make a good cover, Brandon said, just in case. Jeff suggested we wait until the motorcycles left; he wanted to make sure they weren’t going to do something like ride into the Pantheon and shut a bunch of people inside.

So we waited. I was so nervous. It felt like there was nowhere really to go. The piazza was large – large enough that if we started walking away, we could be right in the path of something about to go wrong. We didn’t know who they were radioing to or where those people were. I felt like all we could do was try to make ourselves as small and unnoticeable as possible. It was a truly terrifying feeling.

After what felt like hours (but was probably 10 minutes or so), the motorcycles slowly, one by one, drove off.  They seemed to be splitting up – a few drove through the piazza and a few drove in one direction or another. Did I mention this was a pedestrian-only piazza? So why weren’t the polizia stopping them? In fact, the police didn’t seem concerned at all. Was this because they knew them and there was no threat? Or were they merely acting unconcerned and had actually called for backup? I don’t know. All I do know is people say if something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts, and something certainly didn’t feel right.

After they left, we spent a few minutes inside the Pantheon. I can’t speak for anyone else but I know my mind was elsewhere. I could not wait to get out of that building and out of that square. Quite a different feeling from the last time I visited the Pantheon, more than a decade before.

We left, started walking toward Piazza Navona, and then the motorcycles came back. Not all of them, but a few, and we just hightailed it out as fast as we could.

For the rest of the night, I was jumpy every time I heard a motorcycle. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you know that means I was jumpy pretty much all night.

It could have been nothing — Jeff wondered if it was a tour group. But what tour group would pull up to the Pantheon and not go inside? And what was with the walkie talkies and multiple cell phones and the one guy with a different helmet? None of it felt right.

Hamburg to London

Four days after the attacks on Paris, we were in Hamburg, about an hour and a half north of where the soccer game in Hanover was called off due to a bomb threat.

St. Erwin's Hotel, London, England.
St. Erwin’s Hotel, London, England.

And on Friday, November 13, 2015, we were in London, hanging out at dinner with Lydia and Josh at a posh restaurant at the St. Erwin’s Hotel where we were staying, when Lydia got a frantic message from her dad that said “Get out of the city now. Stuff is going down in Paris.”

It was scary being in a city that arguably makes a good target for Daesh. I’ve been giving myself a crash course in politics since I’ve been here, and I’m learning about Germany, Italy and England’s stance on refugees. I think about how my trip to Paris fell through – we would have been leaving within a few days of the attacks had it not.

It’s hard to feel safe anywhere right now, really. Germany has a huge target on its back. So does Italy. Hell, so does United States, so even going home wouldn’t fix that feeling.

It seems, from the news coverage here that I’ve been watching, that people are really looking to the U.S. It’s amazing how many times Obama is quoted. I get the impression that people feel comforted by America, that people are looking to us for answers and for comfort.

Mourning in Venice

The funeral was yesterday in St. Marco’s Square for the Italian victim of the Paris attacks. She was at the concert when she was shot. Her boyfriend survived and she didn’t. We saw the crews cleaning up after the funeral was over. Even for a tourist like myself, Venice seems so small in moments like these. When we saw Anthony at the hotel later, he looked as if he might be grieving a little personally. I wondered whether he knew her or not but the answer to that is almost irrelevant — these attacks were personal. And the whole of Europe is feeling it.

This American is feeling it too.